Retirement Considerations for Women

Women are more likely to experience a savings shortfall.

March is Women’s History Month, so I thought it might be a good time to focus on how women are doing when it comes to planning for retirement. In my business of working with many federal employees who are in various stages of planning, I find an increasing number of women who are the breadwinners for their families or single women who are providing for themselves while planning for retirement.

For a long time, women were considered to be in a position of dependency when it came to retirement considerations. As a Social Security bulletin noted in 1972: “As early as 1939, the Social Security Act was amended to strengthen protection for families by providing benefits for the dependents and survivors of insured workers. In an attempt to avoid detailed investigations of family financial relationships, it was decided to base dependency determinations on the then generally accepted presumption that a man is responsible for the support of his wife and children.”

According to a 1993 Social Security bulletin, as late as 1940, about 80 percent of married women were not in the labor force at the time they were married. Gradually, more of them remained employed until they began to have children. It was only after World War II that for the first time women in large numbers re-entered the labor force as their children were growing up, and gradually did so after progressively shorter intervals. In time, a growing minority of women remained in the labor force even during their childbearing years. 

As this Office of Personnel Management analysis notes, programs that help women—and men—balance their work and family lives have expanded in scope and are becoming more popular. And the gap in pay between men and women in the federal workforce has been steadily closing as women assume a greater percentage of managerial roles. As of 2014, 44 percent of managers between the ages of 25 and 34 were women. That’s not quite half, but it’s higher than the percentage for older women. Of supervisors and managers between the ages of 55 and 64, 35 percent were women in 2014.

Still, according to recent data, women are much more likely than men to have a savings shortfall in retirement, largely because of their lower lifetime earnings. By extension, they’re also more likely to rely exclusively on Social Security for their living expenses in retirement. 

Thanks to the Civil Service Retirement System and the Federal Employees Retirement System, federally retired women have an earned pension benefit in addition to Social Security (or, in the case of many CSRS retirees, the benefit takes the place of Social Security).

Beyond their federal pensions, what can women do to secure their retirement? The Women’s Institute for a Secure Retirement provides a retirement planning checklist for women, but since it wasn’t geared specifically to federally employed women, I came up with a list of questions that these women should ask themselves, divided into several categories:

Retirement Benefits

  • Do you know when you will be eligible for retirement under FERS or CSRS?
  • If you are married, have you evaluated the cost and benefit of providing a survivor annuity to your spouse?
  • Do you know what happens to your benefit if you leave federal service before being eligible for an immediate retirement? Do you know when you would be eligible for a deferred retirement?
  • Do you know what happens to your benefit if you retire early? Do you know how cost of living adjustments are applied?
  • Have you computed how much of your net income will be replaced by the net value (after possible reductions for age, survivor elections, court-ordered former spouse benefits, service credit deposits, and withholdings for taxes and insurance) of your government pension at your desired retirement timeframe? 

Social Security

  • Do you know how much of your retirement income will come from Social Security that you have earned for yourself compared to what a spouse, deceased spouse or former spouse may have earned for you? 
  • Have you considered the optimum time to claim Social Security retirement benefits?
  • Have you considered whether your Social Security benefit will be subject to income tax?

Thrift Savings Plan

  • How much will you need to withdraw from your savings to meet your retirement income goals?
  • Are your savings on track to last as long as you need them to? 
  • Have you considered whether you need to engage with a financial professional to help you manage your investments to achieve your financial goals?


  • If you are nearing age 65, have you considered the cost and value of making changes to your health insurance and the option of adding Medicare coverage (parts A and B)?
  • Have you evaluated your life insurance coverage and updated your beneficiary designation?
  • Will you be able to continue health insurance for you (and your spouse, if needed) after retirement?
  • Have you thought about long term care and how you would provide care for you or your spouse, if needed?